LGBTQ equality movement Pink Dot navigates conservatism in Singapore

Now in its eighth year, the LGBTQ equality organization Pink Dot brought together thousands of Singaporeans this past weekend to “celebrate the freedom to love.” Meeting in Hong Lim Park in downtown Singapore (the only spot where public demonstrations are allowed in the country), participants challenged the people of the socially-conservative city-state to move toward greater acceptance of diversity.

An alternative to the gay liberation protests or Pride parades which have characterized the LGBTQ movement in North America and Europe for decades, Pink Dot is instead structured around a non-confrontational strategy centered on family and social acceptance of differences in sexual orientation. A play on tiny Singapore’s nickname as “the little red dot,” Pink Dot rallies its pink-clad supporters annually to form a huge pink circle in a symbolic call on the country to embrace all its members. Eschewing the rainbow banners more commonly associated with LGBTQ events internationally, Pink Dot blends the red and white colors of Singapore’s national flag.

In an authoritarian society where courting foreign investment is the state’s paramount goal and political dissent is channeled into controlled outlets, the activists behind Pink Dot have walked a fine line since 2009 as they have organized some of the largest non-government political events to be seen in Singapore in decades. Support from a number of global corporations has also brought a certain level of legitimacy and cover in an atmosphere where free trade and foreign direct investment are necessary parts of national economic survival.

Pink Dot’s strategy is an expression of what Singapore scholar Lynette Chua, in her book Mobilizing Gay Singapore, has called “pragmatic resistance” to the array of legal barriers standing in the way of collective mobilization in the country. In contrast to the liberal democracies of the West, an “unusual politics of gay rights” has emerged in Singapore, where LGBTQ activists are engaged in a struggle not just to define equality, but also to set the boundaries of civil and political liberties in general.

It is a strategy also tailor-made for a country where racial, religious, and linguistic harmony are highly-prized and state-sanctioned, especially since the Race Riots of 1964. Instead of focusing on critique and protest, Pink Dot pushes Singapore society to live up to its own ideals of diversity, unity, and solidarity. With promotional materials and videos in each of the island nation’s official languages – English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil – Pink Dot has masterfully capitalized on the official ideology of multiracialism and diversity.

Even with its success – growing from 2,500 participants in 2009 to nearly 30,000 last year – Pink Dot continues to operate in a challenging political and legal environment. Same-sex relations between men remain officially proscribed (women go unmentioned) under Section 377A of the penal code Singapore inherited from its days as a British colony.

Though rarely enforced, the fact that it remains on the books and that prosecutions under it are not unheard of, 377A keeps a legal cloud hanging over any possible moves toward LGBTQ equality. Challenged in the country’s Supreme Court in 2014, the law was upheld. The ruling came as no surprise, for as the Economist wryly noted at the time, “Singapore’s government tends to do well before Singaporean courts.”

The ruling People’s Action Party, in power since 1959, continues to stand firm in its position that Singapore is a socially-conservative society and that no drastic action on 377A will be taken. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last year declared, “There is space for the gay community but they should not push the agenda too hard because if they push the agenda too hard, there will be a very strong pushback.”

Beyond the government’s reminders not to push too fast, a number of religious groups in the country have also mobilized in reaction to Pink Dot’s advances. Muslim and Christian groups threw together “Wear White” campaigns in opposition to Pink Dot participants’ attire. Though it made headlines in 2014 and 2015, this reactionary move seems to have faded this year.

The resistance to advancing LGBTQ equality in Singapore, which is Southeast Asia’s most economically advanced country, threatens to leave it behind some neighbors, like Vietnam, who are signaling openness to measures up to and including marriage equality.

Though born in one of the world’s smallest nations, Pink Dot’s strategic focus on celebrating love has rapidly become a model for LGBTQ freedom struggles in other socially-conservative or authoritarian settings. Singaporeans and others of Asian heritage in different countries have also embraced Pink Dot as a model suited to their communities. Since 2011, Pink Dot events have popped up in Taiwan; Salt Lake City, Utah; Anchorage, Alaska; Toronto and Montreal, Canada; London, U.K.; Okinawa; New York City; and Malaysia.

“As we move into our eighth year, we felt it was timely to emphasize that Pink Dot is an annual rally to speak up and stand strongly against discrimination, and champion the importance of inclusivity and diversity in Singapore,” Paerin Choa, Pink Dot spokesperson, said.

“We are looking forward to the day when everyone in Singapore understands and celebrates the fact that the Freedom to Love is a fundamental human right that should not be denied to anyone.”

Photo: Pink Dot Singapore attendees turn Hong Lim Park pink with flashlights in 2013.  


K.Y. Lee
K.Y. Lee

K.Y. Lee is a writer on public affairs in Singapore.